Out in the cold: Irregular subway ops leads to longer wait times

One could say that New York City’s subway trains are here, there, and everywhere: new analysis by The Big Board of agency data from January 2018 has found that fewer trains are running than scheduled, as well as train bunching, has often left commuters waiting for twice as long as they should be.

Along the heavily-traveled Lexington Avenue corridor, maximum wait times, the longest period of time a rider could be stuck waiting for a train, are sometimes double what is prescribed by the schedule. One example of this is trying to get on a southbound 6 train at 86th Street station, which was the sixth busiest station systemwide in 2016.

During the 7 o’clock hour, on average, two fewer trains run than are scheduled (17 versus 15 — effectively an 11% reduction in service), and the maximum wait time is double what it should be: eight minutes versus four minutes.

The same trend holds even outside of the peak periods: even at 1 o’clock, with two extra trains on the rails than the schedule provides for, the maximum wait time between trains is still almost twice what is expected: seven minutes instead of four.

“Planned subway service barely meets demand, but when the subways that are promised don’t even show up, it only makes commutes worse,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“Dude where’s my subway? Should not be the catch phrase for the MTA,” Kallos said.

The M.T.A. did not respond to emails requesting comment for this story.

The full dataset, with information station by station, can be viewed at http://headway.bigboard.blog.

Grace - New York City - Manhattan

If you’re trying to catch a northbound 2 train in lower Manhattan during the evening rush hour, even with service at its scheduled level, riders may find an extended wait.

At the Park Place station, despite the number of trains planned and actually in service being equal, the maximum wait time between trains during the 7 o’clock hour is more than 1.5x the scheduled amount: 11 minutes instead of seven. This happens throughout the night peak hours, with the highest gap during the 6 o’clock hour, with a maximum wait of 11 minutes versus six.

However, since the average wait time between trains remains a relatively constant ten minutes, this signals that there is a different force at play causing the disruption: train bunching.

The “bunching” of transit vehicles, often the subject of bus riders’ ire, is when several buses or trains run very closely together and are not evenly spaced, leaving gaps in service. A sample scenario could be, out of four subway trains running, three being one or two minutes apart, while the fourth is five minutes behind. This phenomenon can lead to extreme crowding on the first and last vehicle of the set, but leave the middle ones not completely full — wasting system capacity to carry more customers.

The delays felt by customers come during a difficult period for the agency — it was criticized after a weekend-long software upgrade on MetroCard machines that would disable credit/debit card was only announced two days prior, (it later postponed the program and finished it one night), and straphangers are increasing venting about the quality of service on social media.

The Riders Alliance, a rider advocacy group, pinned responsibility for the “vicious cycle of subway delays and cancellations” at Governor Cuomo, who wields the most power over the agency, in appointing its chairman, vice chairman, and three other board seats.

“[…] Only Governor Cuomo can modernize a system so creaky it can’t even handle its own service schedule, much less meet contemporary demands,” the Alliance’s Danny Pearlstein said.

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